The Forester in its newest iteration has obviously given up the guessing game as it took on a more traditional SUV look. The new for 2010 Outback seems to be yet undecided though. But a thorough 500-kilometer weekend jaunt with this Suby revealed its true colors better than any first impression can.
Driving the Outback on a northern trip to Baguio City was a perfect way to really get to know what it's all about. The lengthy highway stints and mountain road climbs allowed me to get past skin deep. Worth mentioning nonetheless are the exterior changes penned by Subaru. Easily distinguishable is the busy front redesign that now features bolder upswept headlights, and is complemented by a more sizable grille. Tail-lights are also revamped to larger ones that hug all the way from the rear gate to the fenders. Subaru seemed to infuse a more rugged appeal to this 4th generation model, swapping the sleek wagon look of the old one for a more butchy, more angular, more "I've been pumping iron" kind of persona. Subaru loyalists may lament the deletion of the frame-less doors and double sun-roof, but these changes were probably done to benefit NVH and overall refinement. Dimensions wise, although slightly shorter in length than its predecessor, the new Outback is some 50 mm wider and 100 mm taller, as well as enjoying a longer wheelbase. These changes all point to a maturing of sorts as it aims to tackle more of what the consumer wants in a versatile multi-purpose car.
That being said, the Outback remains as boring in the looks department as a piece of bagel. You'd hardly notice it if it passed by, and lacks the visual appeal of premium albeit pricier rivals like the Audi A4 Avant and Volvo XC70.
Step inside and you're senses recalibrate a bit, telling you you're not quite in a sedan, nor are you in a high and mighty UTE. You sit elevated, and is easily noticed when side by side with a typical 4-door while waiting for the traffic light to turn green. But driving position is definitely not truck like. Your senses then tell you you're piloting quite a substantial heap of metal, very much different to the feeling of being behind say a lighter Honda CR-V, or even its genetic brethren the Forester. Instead, images of driving a Honda Accord or Toyota Camry come to mind. Yes, the Outback is similar to being inside an executive midsize sedan, with the apparent girth and floatiness, not to mention over-assisted steering feel (read: very light) of it all. Heavy as it may be by car standards, it's very light when judged against comparable SUVs (1610 kg vs Ford Explorer's 1940 kg).
Cabin is definitely worthy of executive class status, as supple leather in the steering wheel, door panels, and seats blend nicely with well-molded plastic in the dash and console. Wood accenting adds some more plushness to the interior. Creature comforts like dual side climate control, cruise control, and powered front seats are present. Other rave-worthy gadgets are the HID driving lights, electronically folding mirrors, 6-CD stereo with aux port, rain-sensing wipers, electronic parking brake and the retractable moon-roof.
Did I fail to mention SI-Drive? For those who haven't heard of Subaru's intuitive drivetrain system, SI drive is a feature that lets the driver alter the throttle and transmission mappings to suit various driving styles and road conditions. There are three settings, namely Sport (In a Hurry mode), Sport Sharp (Pissed Off mode), and Intelligent Mode (Sunday Drive mode). As the descriptions may suggest, Sport mode lets you drive with some sense of urgency but still retaining the refined demeanor of the car, while Sport Sharp is like firing up a 25-shot of nitrous with shift points set to max; thus allowing you to make perfect use of the excellent torque band. Intelligent mode is naturally set for efficiency and economy, with the vehicle behaving like a purring kitten.
Working in conjunction with the horizontally opposed 3.6L 6-cylinder engine, the Outback offers an enjoyable drive with its healthy 248 PS and 247 lb-ft of twist. What you really do appreciate is the syrupy smooth torque, 225 lb-ft of which is on tap beginning at 2000 rpm. Married to a 5-speed automatic transmission with Sportshift (paddle shifter equipped), the Outback can scoot from nil to 100kmh in just 7.5 sec, and hit a claimed top sped of 230 km/h. This from an engine that returned a 10.2 km/L fuel range (combined city and highway).
On the NLEX and SCTEX, the Outback was solid even with 5 occupants and a boot full of luggage. It was stable for a high riding wagon, and easily touched 218 km/h without straining its vocals too much. On the twisting roads of Kennon (On the way up) and Marcos (On the way down), it belied its size and was agile all the way through. Though power was never in question, the shifting duties could have used more directness. Even with the paddles, the Outback seemed to want in engine-braking feel on the downhill portions. It felt best left on its own especially when Sport Sharp was engaged anyway. Macpherson struts on front and double wishbone on the back return car like poise and balance, and the dampers seem up to task with roughing it out. A few deep potholes proved so as the Outback handled them with aplomb.
The Outback one-ups common sedans with its symmetrical all wheel drive system that powers all four wheels in unison, and the prodigious 8.7 inches of ground clearance afforded to it. Compared to another soft-roader like the new Toyota Rav4 (only has 7.5 inches), the Outback offers superior height against obstacles. Don't venture off too far though, as it doesn't come with a locking differential. This means you're likely to get stuck should the terrain transition from bad to worse. The Outback is best enjoyed on snowy or sandy terrain, but not really in rock strewn mud gorged territory.
What makes it more impressive are the safety features that round out such a convincing all weather family wagon. The Outback is available with standard ABS with EBD, Vehicle Dynamics Control System (traction control), and 7 airbags.
In the vicinity of PhP 2.39 million though, the Outback commands a pretty penny. Sure it's cheaper than a Volvo XC70, but it's also more expensive than its close kin the Legacy wagon which essentially offers what the Outback has, in more handsome attire mind you. If you can look past the staid facade and steep entrance fee though, what you're getting is a really well polished carriage that can satisfy what people typically ask for in an SUV, and at the same time offer genuine car like dynamics. It's all about having that SUV muscle without that SUV mass.